Vancouver, BC – The UBC Thunderbirds squeaked out an 83-77 victory on Thursday to take the first game in a best-of-three series against the UNBC Timberwolves. Host UBC took advantage of home court and avoided a late game scare thanks to an early, sizeable 19-point lead back by Tommy Nixon‘s game-high 23 points.
UNBC’s Markus MacKay drained a pair of unanswered three-pointers in the late stages of the fourth quarter to make things interesting but several missed chances paved the way for UBC’s game one victory. The Thunderbirds entertained a 19-point lead at the 6:19 mark of the fourth quarter, which was cut by more than half thanks to a late UNBC run but two missed three-pointers from Rhys Elliott and Sam Zhang dashed any hopes of a comeback.
Thursday marked UNBC’s first post-season appearance in its men’s basketball program history since the team made its Canada West debut in 2012, falling to 0-5 lifetime against their provincial rivals. Elliott had a stellar game scoring a team-high 21 points for his Timberwolves but was no match for UBC’s 49.5% (32-for-65) shooting.
“They’re a hard working team and we have to get back to exploiting some of our opponent’s weaknesses, something we did well down the stretch during the regular season,” added UBC bench boss Kevin Hanson. “We have a real size advantage and look to use that to take control of tomorrow’s game.”
To begin the game, the Thunderbirds jumped out to a 10-4 lead but UNBC would chip away and ultimately grab the lead with two minutes remaining in the opening stanza. Nixon had a buzzer-beating put back to make it a one point, 22-21 deficit for the T-Birds as the Canada West regular season scoring champion had 12 points in the opening quarter.
UBC had their northern rivals on the ropes in the second quarter going on a 12-3 run putting them up 43-36 with just over two minutes remaining in the half. Both teams would trade subsequent baskets ending in a 45-38 UBC advantage at halftime.
Both Nixon and Tonner Jackson dominated on the offensive end, combining for 28 of UBC’s 45 first half points. Nixon had a team high 16 points through 20 minutes while Elliott continued to lead the UNBC Timberwolves with 16 points himself, matching his 15.3 point per game regular season average through half.
UBC continued to apply the pressure in the third, and opened up a 13-point lead after UNBC head coach Todd Jordan was assessed a technical. Conor Morgan drained a three-ball followed by an emphatic dunk putting his team up by 19, UBC’s largest lead of the game.
UNBC would cut into that lead by draining their final two field goals of the quarter and be tasked with overcoming an 11-point deficit as UBC lead 66-55 with one quarter remaining.
UNBC made things intriguing near the latter stages of the game, thanks to a pair of unanswered three-pointers but UBC would hold off the Timberwolves surge over the final two minutes. Elliott and Zhang missed their three-pointers on back-to-back possessions, which forced them to repeatedly foul, preventing them from making the comeback.
In his first playoff appearance donning a T-Birds jersey, Jackson finished the night with a solid 16 points while Nixon co-lead all rebounders with 10 boards, giving him the game’s lone double double. UNBC’s leading scorer during the regular season, Franco Kouagnia, finished the game with just eight points but had a strong game on the boards, grabbing 10 rebounds.
“They scored a lot in transition and off loose balls, and you can’t let other teams out hustle you in these pressure situations,” concluded Hanson. “With that said, we played some guys a bit more than anticipated so we’re looking to end this series tomorrow and take advantage of an extra days rest.”
Game two goes tomorrow evening at 8 p.m. at War Memorial Gym while game three, if necessary, will take place Saturday at 7 p.m.